What’s the worst scare you’ve experienced in the theater?
This one’s fresh in my mind: Until this past Fourth of July, I’d never seen Jaws. And while this was my first official visit to Amity Island, you don’t get into this line of work without at least absorbing the basic building blocks of The Movie That Changed Summers Forever by osmosis: The initial attack, the panicked beachgoers, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat,” etc. But I was unprepared for the surprise waiting for Hooper in the hull of Ben Gardner’s boat, an ingenious jump scare engineered from misdirection, the suspense of John Williams’ instrumental score, an alarming sound effect, and one disturbing prop. The jolt caused me to clench the beer can I was holding—splashing some of its contents on my wife. Not exactly crushing it like Quint, though we had a good laugh about it once Richard Dreyfuss returned to the surface.
Worst in what sense? Because the one I’ll never live down was in The Conjuring 2, which I begged Film Editor A.A. Dowd to let me review for the site. We sat next to each other at the critics’ screening, and Dowd claims I screamed out loud at one point; I don’t remember screaming during the movie, so I contend that this is an exaggeration. That being said, James Wan’s jump-scare craftsmanship is especially good in that movie, proceeding the “boo!” moments with just enough sustained tension that your body starts to wonder if it can relax moments before the loud, scary, sudden reveal. The film loses almost all of that adrenaline-pumping momentum in its back half, but there are a handful of truly effective moments in the first 45 minutes: the slamming doors, the furniture flying around the room, the reflection of the old man appearing in the TV. The one that really got me, though, was the sequence where the youngest son of haunted family the Hodgsons is playing with a fire truck that zooms out of his grasp and down a dimly lit hallway, resting in front of the pitch-black opening to a blanket fort. The boy pushes the truck into the fort, a ghostly voice moans, I jumped about an inch out of my seat—and, if you ask some people, screamed.
There’s only one horror movie that’s ever kept me up late at night, too afraid to turn out the lights (even though the film’s own climax makes it clear that bright lights and room to run are no protection whatsoever against its antagonist’s ghostly vengeance): Gore Verbinski’s The Ring. No film has ever made me feel more doomed, or more vulnerable, than Verbinski’s moody, lushly shot adaptation of Hideo Nakata’s more modest original. What always sticks in my mind about The Ring is how sparing Verbinski is in his use of sudden shocks, and how consequently awful they are when they actually arrive. The jitters and jumps of Samara’s big showpiece at the end of the movie are bad. Even worse, though, is the moment early on, when a quiet dialogue scene between Naomi Watts’ Rachel and her sister abruptly flashes back to the ugly consequence of the film’s dread-filled cold open. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it masterpiece of makeup design that’s so stomach turning that, even though I’m linking to it here, I can’t bring myself to watch the clip for myself. “I saw her face…” Ugh!
I’ve written about this before, but I’ve never before or after experienced personal horror in a movie theater of the sort that was visited upon me by my first screening of The Grudge. The Sarah Michelle Gellar-starring J-horror adaptation isn’t the best scary movie ever made, but good god, did it make an impression on me. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s about a spirit that haunts and eventually kills anyone who sets foot inside a certain cursed house in Japan. It didn’t matter that I was living in the Midwest. I will happily point out the moment that really seared into my brain the knowledge I wouldn’t be sleeping that night: It’s after a woman hides in her bed to escape the vengeful creature and, pulling up the sheets, she suddenly sees a shape at the foot of her bed, and when she lifts up the covers, that guttural rattle of a throaty cry jumps up in the sound mix as the pale, stringy-haired monster reaches for her. There’s an immediate cutaway, but the damage was done. Beds were ruined for me for a while. It wasn’t pretty. At least some good came of it: I committed to overcoming my aversion to horror. Scrolling through the number of new titles on Shudder I’ve already seen, I can assure you, it worked.
I don’t see a lot of movies in the theater (and when I do it’s almost always a Star Wars or an Avengers), so I’m sorry to repeat a movie here, but I was also scared by The Conjuring 2. The fire truck scene is good, but the one that stuck with me was when Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren actually sees the demonic nun appear in her home and point her to an office of some sort—well, it could be an office, but it might as well just be a designated Scary Room for all of the spooky props that the Warrens have foolishly scattered about, including multiple weird paintings, what seems to be a cloak hung up on a rack, and the most impossibly effective blinds in the history of windows. The scene is a little silly in retrospect, throwing in so much potential for scares that the actual scare feels anticlimactic (obviously Valak is going to leap out of the painting of Valak), but it definitely landed for me the first time through.
I’m too old and fidgety for it now, but I used to love going to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre for its annual Music Box Of Horrors, a punishing, cathartic 24-hour horror film marathon. My best experience was back in 2013—Maniac Cop 2, The Manitou, Dream Warriors, Possession—but it was the year before that really left an impression. That’s because it wasn’t until around 1 a.m.—more than 12 hours in—that I realized the next movie on the docket was one I had forgotten until that very moment: Lucio Fulci’s 1981 mind-fuck The Beyond. When I was first getting into horror in high school, a co-worker of mine at Eddie Bauer (weird, I know) began loaning me his favorites. I couldn’t get past the first 10 minutes of The Beyond, Fulci’s vicious, mealy gore and off-kilter surreality having shaken my fragile sensibilities. I had forgotten its name by the time the marathon came around, but when I heard the host detail its plot—a woman inherits a hotel that doubles as a portal to hell—it dawned on me that I was about to confront what, once upon a time, I couldn’t handle. I did a lot better this time around—I still hid behind my hands when the spiders ate that dude’s eyes, though—but it was a very peculiar kind of fear I felt as the opening credits rolled, a feeling that I was being dragged into a part of my memory I’d long suppressed.
I enjoy horror movies, but it took me a long time to do so, and I still rarely see them in theaters, preferring to watch at home, where I can exert some control over my surroundings. So usually anything I see that scares the hell out of me in a theater will be from a scene that’s tonally different from the rest of the movie I’m watching. To wit: I have never lost my shit like I did when Large Marge revealed herself to Pee-wee in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. And yeah, I was a kid, and yeah, watching it now with the big googly eyes and Claymation tongue lolling are obviously hilarious and ridiculous, but I still think Tim Burton is on to something with his penchant for people’s faces contorting into unrecognizable grotesques. The scene is also helped by how quiet and muted everything is leading up to the jump scare, as well as Alice Nunn’s fantastic narration. (“Like a garbage truck dropped of the Empire State Building!”) But anytime a recognizable face violently mutates into a freaky visage, I freak out.